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Ukraine: A War of Maneuver or Attrition?

T-72
T-72 Main Battle Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Plenty of experts are saying that we’ve shifted from a war of maneuver to a war of attrition in Ukraine. That may be true, but it’s worth unpacking those two concepts, both in terms of their history and in their application to the current conflict.

A decisive battle of maneuver either inflicts a strategic defeat without destroying the fielded forces of the enemy or destroys those forces in rapid engagement or series of engagements; think Austerlitz or Pearl Harbor or the 1940 Ardennes Offensive. Wars of attrition have a longer time frame, with the objective of grinding enemy capabilities down to either weaken the foe in general terms or to improve one’s position sufficiently to launch a new maneuver campaign. These are of course ideal types and it takes some conceptual stretching to apply them to naval, air, and financial warfare, but the concepts remain useful. It is not precisely true that all wars of attrition are failed wars of maneuver (Egypt’s War of Attrition against Israel in the late 1960s, and arguably the Donbas conflict since 2014 had attrition as the primary strategic purpose) but it is perhaps more true than the Russians or Ukrainians would like.

World War I is the archetypal war of attrition, although the term is only really useful in reference to the campaigns in France and along the Isonzo. On the Western Front, a battle of grand maneuver rapidly shifted to attrition in the first six weeks when German forces suffered a defeat at the Battle of the Marne. The two sides then settled into trench warfare, inflicting catastrophic damage on each other along a series of trenches that were a good deal more fluid than we tend to remember. Along the Isonzo, Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces battered one another endlessly for a few square miles of mountainous terrain.

But things can change rapidly. As grinding and (in the case of the Western Front) as culturally transformative these campaigns were, they each transitioned to maneuver with a rapidity that shocked the participants.  At Caporetto in late 1917, the Germans re-established a battle of maneuver through the application of new techniques and significant reserves of soldiers. The battle of attrition in the West ended with the Ludendorff Offensive, which tore massive holes in Entente lines and before collapsing from a lack of men and munitions. But maneuver was re-established; within months the Reichswehr was in headlong retreat, unable to contain or even very much slow the Entente advance.

And the fact that Ukraine and Russia are griding out in attritive fashion doesn’t mean that nothing important is happening. Russia is capturing territory and inflicting damage on Ukrainian forces; Ukraine is retaking some territory and also inflicting damage on Russian forces. Battles of attrition can be decisive, even if they don’t feel like it at this time. The Solomon Islands Campaign in World War II is not normally thought of as a battle of attrition, in part because it involved a series of spectacular battles at sea, on land, and in the air. The chief strategic impact of the campaign, however, was the severe attrition that the Allies managed to inflict on the Japanese. The Allies could absorb the losses that the Japanese inflicted and make them good with industrial production; the Japanese could not recover from the losses inflicted by the Allies, with dramatic consequences for the rest of the war. Attrition can rapidly yield to maneuver if critical geographical points fall that enable maneuver (or force the enemy into headlong retreat), or if the damage inflicted on an enemy force undermines its coherence and ability to resist.

We can even apply the concepts to economic and financial war. The British blockade of Germany in World War I is arguably the most decisive application of attrition in the history of modern conflict. Both the First and Second Battles of the Atlantic were entirely about attrition, pitting the damage that the Germans could inflict on Allied shipping against the destruction that the Allies could wreak on the German U-boat force. The Allied air campaigns, despite the spectacular destruction of cities such as Hamburg and Tokyo, also had attrition as the goal. In the current conflict, the United States and its allies probably did not believe that the raft of economic and financial sanctions against Russia would immediately bring Moscow to its knees, but they likely shared at least a glimmer of hope that they could induce an economic collapse that would make it impossible for Russia to continue the war. Instead, Russia and the West are now engaged in a grinding campaign of attrition, with each side suffering damage and presumably evaluating the price of continuing the conflict.

Thus, even though we’re in the midst of more than one campaign of attrition, it does not mean that nothing important is happening in the war. Either Russia or Ukraine could restore maneuver to the battlefield in spectacular ways, in part because of the impact of attrition. And the flow of Western equipment and supplies matters very much to Ukraine’s ability to hold its own during this phase of attrition, as well as to take advantage if maneuver returns to the battlefield.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. aldol11

    June 5, 2022 at 11:18 am

    attrition yes but not by Russian choice, Russia is not able to support armor assault at all, the Russian army will collapse by august at the latest

    • from Russia with love

      June 6, 2022 at 5:17 pm

      what do you say if the Ukrainian army collapses by August? 🙂

  2. Eric-ji

    June 5, 2022 at 11:37 am

    The Soviets won its part of WWII by having more personnel and materiel. In Ukraine Russia still has the personnel advantage, though seemingly poorly led (as in the early part of WWII). But Ukraine likely has or will have the advantage in materiel.

    Interesting drama but so sad for Ukraine, Russia and the world.

  3. Error404

    June 5, 2022 at 3:24 pm

    Ukraine is America’s and biden’s greatest folly.

    Biden wanted revenge (and saw Ukraine as a sort of waging his personal vendetta) for ‘russian interference’ in the 2020 US presidential elections, yet like uncle Sam itself, Biden completely failed to look in the mirror.

    Biden won 2020 via cheating, and ‘russian interference’ was extremely minimal, almost certainly nothing of the sort done by US against other countries.

    Hunter laptop wasn’t and still isn’t Russian disinformation, but of course the lie machine in US is so powerful Biden was taken in by all the blatant lies and falsehoods.NOTHING UNUSUAL really in Washington.

    Now back to Ukraine, the greatest folly since nam, another earlier folly based on lies.

    Ukraine will put Russia onto the ropes, with the biden-led sanctions set to be permanent against Russia or lasting until arrival of judgement Day, thus the ONLY PATH open for Moscow is use of nuclear weapons.

    Russia has less warheads available for use compared to US (which has always been fully prepared for nuclear war).But still enough to fry any country twice over.

    AFTER george w bush entered white house, pentagon issued a fresh nuclear doctrine that affirmed an offensive nuclear first strike capability as the sole central pillar of US national defense policy, the US went on to develop super-fuzed warheads for it’s sub-launched nukes.These have since been deployed.

    Russia has responded by developing rs-24 missile that can evade US & NATO bmd defenses as it flies flatter trajectories compared to traditional ICBMs, and the rs-28 with super long range that allows it to fly via the south pole and S-400 and S-500 interceptor systems.

    Thus everyone is set to USE NUKES in the final showdown or final countdown except the foot soldiers in Kyiv and those who think USA has altruistic intentions in Europe.

    For Biden and US, Ukraine is merely Cannon fodder. Nothing else.Biden thinks he can win this one, but it is his greatest folly after his past huge folly accusing the driver who broadsided his late wife’s car of drunkenness.

    Ukraine will be the tinderbox for nuclear war in Europe similar to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Asia.

    • mcswell

      June 5, 2022 at 10:18 pm

      Biden wanted revenge, you say. Remind me: who invaded who on February 24?

    • monkfelonious

      June 6, 2022 at 12:12 am

      How many errors can you achieve, Sparky?

  4. Error403

    June 5, 2022 at 4:07 pm

    In direct response to America’s growing nuclear ambitions that also included stationing b61 tactical nukes (dial-your-yield type)for use in localized combat situations abroad and increased bmd defense (after withdrawal from ABM Treaty in 2002) globally, Putin on March 1 2018 announced a slew of new weapons to confront Washington.

    The new weapons include kinzhal (already used in Ukraine), Sarmat ICBM, Avangard hypersonic glider, the burevestnik cruise missile and the Poseidon nuclear torpedo (packing a big massive warhead) that would help balance the nuclear threat from US and NATO.

    Thus Russia has all this while been preparing for nuke war in Europe which Biden apparently is now planning (THANKS, JOE) and Ukraine is the laboratory (no pun intended due to 30+bio facilities by pentagon) or testing ground for mini ww3.

    Biden, advised by deep state reps, brilliantly has a plan for democrat party victory this November, but as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry even in the best of times.

  5. Freeborn John

    June 5, 2022 at 4:21 pm

    NATO has 20x the industrial production of Russia, even prior to sanctions. A war of attrition between such unmatched opponents simply means that Russia is brought to its knees. If the USSR couldn’t beat Afghanistan, Russia certainly cannot Ukraine supplied with unlimited weapons from the West. Putin’s only hope was a Pearl Harbour type attack to knock Kiev out in days and he couldn’t plan or resource even that.

    • Begemot

      June 5, 2022 at 9:44 pm

      “NATO has 20x the industrial production of Russia … [and] the USSR couldn’t beat Afghanistan.”

      And with all of that industrial advantage the US and its NATO allies couldn’t beat Afghanistan. The US can’t currently produce baby formula to meet its own needs. Your US/NATO colossus may be bestriding the globe on legs of clay.

      • TrustbutVerify

        June 6, 2022 at 5:33 pm

        The Soviet sent over 100,000 men into Afghanistan. We sent in SFO and about 10,000 troops and ran the Taliban out of the country. We eventually got to 100K to seal off the tribal areas in Pakistan along the border and interdict infiltrators, but only for a short time – after we killed Bin Laden the numbers decreased dramatically back to less than 10,000.

        • Begemot

          June 7, 2022 at 8:51 pm

          The brute fact remains: the US still lost. The mightiest military force in the history of the planet LOST. Against a light infantry force. It LOST.

          The US is not as good at war as they like to think. Otherwise, wouldn’t the US have won in Afghanistan?

  6. Error402

    June 5, 2022 at 4:29 pm

    Ukraine is the sacrificial lamb for Joe Biden and his cohort.Old Joe is really strong on this.No second thoughts.

    Unlike Biden, Donald trump preferred peace, no sacrificial lambs needed.

    On 16 February 2017, in a press conference at the white house, then pres Trump said “it would be great if we get along with Russia”.

    “If we get along with Russia, that’s a positive thing. It’s no terrible, it’s good,” Trump said.

    Of course, US media, US deep state, US defense contractors, US democrat party and warmongers in Europe absolutely disagreed.

    Thus, today, we have Ukraine.

  7. Stefan Stackhouse

    June 5, 2022 at 8:44 pm

    This isn’t the 1940s, and the US doesn’t have so much idle industrial capacity that it can become the “Arsenal of Democracy 2.0” for Ukraine. Our capacity to supply them is limited, and it is questionable whether we can sustain the supply lines in excess of attrition for very long, especially if Ukraine goes over into the counter-offensive in a big way.

  8. monkfelonious

    June 6, 2022 at 12:18 am

    Mr. Farley, I find your assessments kinda light weight and too obvious.

  9. Doyle

    June 6, 2022 at 10:33 am

    Just for reference the B61 bomb has been in use since 1967 and continuously upgraded since. So not a current provocation. As to NATO being on feet of clay, live that delusion Ivan.

  10. Chesty Puller

    June 6, 2022 at 2:07 pm

    This isn’t our war. Our war is here at home with an administration intent on fundamentally undermining our country through open borders and inflation.

  11. RogerBacon

    June 6, 2022 at 3:38 pm

    I wish we had an American administration (and public, for that matter) that was as gung-ho to defend our borders as it is to defend Ukraine’s.

  12. MAGA MAGA

    June 6, 2022 at 6:42 pm

    Ukraine is finished. KAPUT !

    So is Biden. Finished !

    Biden is sending advanced rocket systems to ukraine, and Britain and germany, biden’s vassals or minions, want to do the same.

    Once the rockets land on Ukrainian soil, it would be a signal for Russia to wipe out ukraine completely and the only way is use of nukes.

    Once nukes are used, Biden will be discovered urinating in his pants non-stop !

    TIME FOR HARRIS TO TAKE OVER !

  13. Andrew Schmidt

    June 7, 2022 at 2:23 pm

    I would like to add that the Vietnam War was also a war of attrition. We thought we were going to wear down the North by solely focusing on death counts, which didn’t work. However, they were able to grind us out at 1,000 KIAs a month, which was untenable given the lack of strategic importance to us.

  14. L'amateur d'aéroplanes

    June 7, 2022 at 3:17 pm

    https://france.dayfr.com/international/amp/279056

    ….Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev visited Turkey to sign military cooperation agreements (including the construction of an ANKA attack drone factory in Kazakhstan) and the development of logistics corridors (goods and hydrocarbons) bypassing Russia. territory. This gesture simmered in Russia, inspiring a series of aggressive statements, such as a call to “denazify Kazakhstan” from a member of the Moscow Parliament…

    Should we deduce that for these brilliant intellectuals everything that refuses to be Russian is by definition Nazi?

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